Singing Roll Jordan Roll was clearly a way that slaves stayed hopeful throughout unimaginable hardship, but this song is more than a symbol of hope or perseverance. It is a symbol of faith. Roll Jordan Roll is the embodiment of African American spirituality and demonstrates the unwavering belief held by the slaves that after the trials they endure throughout their lifetime, God will lovingly accept them into paradise.
It is noteworthy that while the title of the song is Roll Jordan Roll, there are myriad variations of the line throughout the song.
The original line roll Jordan roll progresses to better roll, better roll in the first line of the fifth stanza. This slight alteration has significant implications when analyzing it in the historical context during which this song was sung. Enslavement is arguably the most inhumane practice a human being can be subjected to, and as such, it would be understandable for an enslaved person to give up and lose hope.
The presence of the word better in this context serves as a needed encouragement to the slaves to stay fighting for freedom as opposed to accepting their circumstances. Roll Jordan Roll served as a push for slaves to stay hopeful in their hopeless situation, and reminded them that they better attempt to escape and get their freedom back, likely through one of the rivers by the plantation they were kept on.
The last line of the song is also significant: roll, roll. Rather than serving as a gentle nudge towards action, these words are passive.
They flow with ease, which may be a message to the slaves to do the same. It sends the message that even if they lose the fight for freedom against their oppressors on earth, a new kind of freedom lies ahead. Towards the end of the song, the River Jordan stops being a metaphor for the physical rivers on earth. The River Jordan begins to signify itself, and serves as a calming sign of everlasting hope to the slaves. It sends the message that even if they lose the fight for freedom against their masters, the slaves will ultimately inevitably cross the River Jordan to an afterlife of bliss.
It can be argued that singing Roll Jordan Roll was the ultimate form of giving up for the slaves rather than a sign of their hope. After all, as aforementioned, the song was written by a preacher with the intention of subduing African Americans into becoming more cooperative in their enslaved position. Thus, it can be assumed that in singing Roll Jordan Roll on their own volition, the slaves were accepting the message that their natural state in the world as indicated by God was enslavement. However, it is important to note that historically, slaves never stopped fighting and rebelling against their masters. They refused to accept that slavery is natural, and fought for liberty and freedom.
When looking at the history of African American slaves and the persistence they had in fighting for liberation, it cannot be feasible that they sang Roll Jordan Roll as a way of accepting their inferiority in this world. More realistically, rather than being a form of submission, their singing was a way to spiritually uplift themselves through giving the words of the preachers another meaning. Supporters of slavery took religion and turned it into a weapon to propagate their message of white supremacy and black enslavement. However, this misuse of religion does not mean that Christianity is inherently bad and that God truly believes that black people must be enslaved. In singing Roll Jordan Roll, the African American slaves showed their faith that God is loving to all people and not the natural justification for slavery.
African American faith is especially palpable through the line well my sister, you ought to been there now in Roll Jordan Roll. While heaven is made out to be an incredible place, one still needs to die to arrive in heaven. Most people look forward to living a full life before finally arriving in heaven, but singing Roll Jordan Roll shows how much the slaves desired to leave their lives behind.
Admittedly, that there is a degree of hopelessness to the song. It would be unrealistic for people enduring such suffering to remain full of love for life. However, this degree of hopelessness is overshadowed by faith. Faith that after a lifetime of trials and suffering, God has paradise waiting. If the slaves had truly lost all hope and internalized the message propagated by their masters and white preachers, there would be no reason for them to believe in heaven. The God introduced by their masters endorsed unimaginable cruelty towards African Americans. One of the main purposes of Christianity is establishing Gods kingdom on earth. (“What Is The Purpose Of Christianity? | The Modern Churchman”). With a God who believes that an African Americans place in His kingdom on earth is in shackles, an afterlife in His kingdom would likely entail similar circumstances for African Americans. For the slaves to look forward to arriving in heaven to such a degree, they must have had faith that God was kind and not the reason for their suffering on earth.
Analyzing and understanding the words of spirituals such as roll jordan roll is a critical step to understanding the circumstances of African Americans and the beliefs they clung to during a very dark period in their history. Gaining this understanding is vital, for the present is a continuation of the past, and as such it is imperative to properly analyze the past to unearth the origins of the practices that exist today. Roll Jordan Roll particularly shows the African American faith in God, and the impressive way the slaves put their own twist on the initial cruel message perpetrated by their slave masters. This is especially significant today, as African Americans continue to put their own unique twist on various practices. As explored by Doris Evans McGinty, African American music is especially unique. She discusses another scholars research on the oneness of black music- the refusal of its practitioners to fit neatly into traditional categories of folk, popular, jazz, religious, or classical music (Southern, 1982).
African American creativity, spirituality, perseverance, resilience and faith in God were arguably the reasons that they were able to escape bondage and change the precedent of society. This is a part of the history of every African American descendant today- a history that was initially muted and minimized by prejudiced individuals. The careful analysis of Roll Jordan Roll and songs like it ensures that African American history is properly remembered and given the credit it is due in forming today’s society.